Monday, February 22, 2010

Mother Tongue, Mother Hand: On Writing

There are those who feel at home in several languages. Language-wise, I’m always in a hotel, or just across the road from it.

I speak solely English and can add but a light sputtering of other languages. Is there was such a thing as a mother hand, that is, a writing script in which one feels at home, a script in which one writes fluently as opposed to an experience of writing words which is more like drawing them?

I did learn to read Hebrew and to write its script, though I know only little of what it actually means, but what I am referring to here is a variety of styles of writing Roman letters.

Though I can produce many written ‘fonts’, there are a few styles of letterforms that seem natural to me, scripts which I learned early and which continue to form a natural and ongoing part of my writing life. These in addition to the script I employ in my signature.

If I were a computer, I might cite Arial, Times New Roman, or Courier. Instead, I have a style of cursive, and three styles of printing: all caps, upper and lower case printing, and an ornate style that I developed when I was about 12.

Certainly my styles were influenced by observing scripts around me and adopting some of their elements.

My ‘th’ ligature was learned from a middle school science teacher. The G and the B in my signature were adapted from my father’s (and somewhat from my mother’s) signature. Something about the shape of their letters appealed to me and so I took then on board my orthographic canoe. I use these forms of the letter as a specialized kind of display font, mostly when writing my name, but occasionally in writing uppercase G and B. (For security, I haven't posted an image of my signature. I would hate the $4.53 in my bank account to be emptied by an unscrupulous reader of my blog.)

I grew up in Northern Ireland and I remember, when I came to Canada, a principal looking at my script and noting it’s British provenance. I suppose it was more spidery, less plump and round than the standard North American school script.

When I studied with bpNichol in my first years of university, I learned to love his style of lowercase printing as it appeared on my work for class as well as in his work. This was an influence on my writing.

I taught myself to write an ornate, swirly curly script after reading a book on heraldry when I was twelve. The actual style in the book was somewhere between Irish Uncial and Italic, but I adapted it and added its little leafy swirlycues to my repertoire.

I tried to adopt an Irish lowercase ‘g’ sometime in my teens upon observing a friend of my father’s who came from the south of Ireland. It was an affectation for a while, like wearing a cravat which, I confess, I also did for a painful year in my teens.

It is true that, as a teenager, I wanted my writing to say something about me, to make an aesthetic statement, to be an interesting feature about me. This gave way to my current fascination with typography, lettering, orthography, and visual poetry.

I wonder how many writing forms most people would consider their mother script, or at least a script in which they feel at home? I’m interested whether people’s writing remains stable or if they are aware of it changing over time as those who must sign many documents find their signature evolving through repetition and exhaustion. For me, my writing, while remaining stable for the most part, is not so fluent; this causes me to examine it, making conscious decisions as I write as to which form to use, how to connect letters, and even how to shape individual letters. Writing remains a form of discovery, a wavering line wandering onto the page, an alphabetic artery coursing with orthographic blood.


Eccentric Scholar said...

Terrifically fascinating post, Gary! I'm going to e-mail you separately with a context for why I love this so much.

Pearl said...

agreed. that was absorbing.

Geof Huth said...


The kinship I feel with you grows with everything I see. My interest in handwriting is deep. I write about it often enough, and some of my poetry is concerned significantly with that issue.

But as I read this, I thought of my parents, from whom I stole certain aspects of my signature. The G that starts my name is specifically from my mother.

I wrote about signatures on my blog once, and I even posted my current signature, deciding (after some consideration) not to worry about someone stealing and using that part of myself.

Keep being you, man.


Jenny Hill said...

I once failed a spelling test in the third grade for making my handwriting too "fancy." It was resplendent with curlicues and swirls. I spelled all the words correctly, but the teacher didn't appreciate my style I guess.

My father wrote in a tidy army of all capital letters. My mother has a beautifully cramped left-handed script. I developed a weird penchant for f's early in my writing and still write them differently depending on mood. Sometimes they are looped, and sometimes they look musical. I'm not sure where I got that from, exactly.

Thank you for this post. There is much that is beautiful in it. Especially the cravat.